Thursday, April 9, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Crazy Like a Fox.

A self-caricature of Fontaine Fox, hand-colored.
By Rick Marschall

When I was cartoonist and columnist for the Connecticut Herald back in the ‘70s (note to interested parties: that’s the 1970s, not the 1870s) I ran a feature on the back page of the weekend magazine section. It was called Nostalgicomics, and it essentially was a different vintage Sunday page from my collection of tearsheets, with a squib about its history.

This satisfied myself, and at least attracted the attention of certain readers, as it turned out. Fairfield County had more cartoonists per acre than any county in the civilized world. John Cullen Murphy’s son Cullen recently wrote a book on this very subject, and his family’s history, titled Cartoon County. It followed naturally that the demographics yielded as well retired cartoonists, widows of cartoonists, and children of cartoonists.

Fontaine Fox illustrated two of Ring Lardner’s earliest books.
I received many calls from this sacred circle, and was blessed with resultant friendships; contacts with other veterans of cartooning and the newspaper game; and sometimes folks who wanted to clear their attics and closets of old paper.

One call from the blue was a man named Arthur Clark, who had been Fontaine Fox’s assistant, he told me, for years. Fox was the creator of Toonerville Folks. This remarkable panel (and Sunday page) ran between 1913 and 1955. Set in a rural town with a cast of hundreds, the setting and premises allows us to consider Fox the Breugel of the comics.

A letter complaining about a lost letter, and a missed deadline. Fox’s correspondent Heyworth Campbell was an art director; this might pertain to a Dutch Treat Club annual book. Of interest to fans – answers to trivia questions – is his unique letterhead, and the names of his “staff” – Silas Tooner, owner of the trolley line, perhaps mayor of his town; and Dan (Skipper) Withers, conductor of said trolley.
Most of the panels were crowded scenes starring a rotating cast of beloved regulars. Many of the figures went into the language, with characteristics that inspired nicknames and live on – The Powerful Katrinka; Terrible-Tempered Mr Bang; Suitcase Simpson. And Mickey “Himself” McGuire, the neighborhood tough kid. Among many Toonerville film shorts was the series of Mickey “Himself” McGuire movies starring Joe Yule, Jr. When the actor moved on he kept the identifying nickname and became Mickey Rooney.

Then there was the Skipper. His rickety “Toonerville Trolley That Meets All Trains” was the unifying element in all the panels, in graphic and conceptual terms. The Toonerville environment already seemed nostalgic when it began. Small-town America, always drawn in Fox’s idiosyncratic style – slight birds-eye angles; embellished stick figures; characters frequently in animation; landscapes and dialog on diagonal planes; floating words, in partial or non-existent speech balloons; many panels enclosed in a circle instead of a square.

An early arts-and-crafts book, The Good Old Days, illustrated by Fox.
Besides the popular strip run, Toonerville folks were widely merchandised in reprint books, toys, apparel, games, and a mechanical tin toy that is a prized collectible today. When I was consultant to the US Postal System, in 1995 (its 20-stamp set of Classic Comics) I made sure Toonerville Folks was one of the honorees.

Fox had a distinctive style yet had several assistants through the years. He was syndicated variously by his friend John Wheeler (Wheeler Syndicate and Bell Syndicate) and by fellow Greenwich (CT) resident Charles McAdams’ McNaught Syndicate. At the end he controlled and owned his feature and characters.

Early residents of Toonerville gracing the title page of a reprint book.
Clark, who called me that day and invited to his studio, said that Fox (who died in 1964, just past 80) was a genial but firm taskmaster. To master Fox’s distinct style required discipline. Among things he shared (collectors alert!) was that if there were six parallel, angled lines over the Fox signature (a seventh line being the one that connected the two Fs) – that indicated a drawing by Fox himself. More or fewer lines? The work of an assistant, except when Fox did a special sketch.

Arthur anticipated my visit as much as I looked forward to meeting him. We spent a great afternoon together, and he presented me with four original panels he pre-selected, each with a major character… one of them, of course, being the Trolley itself.

A typical Toonerville newspaper panel.
Fox was born in Louisville, drew political cartoons (conservative Republican) and lived most of his life in Chicago and the New York suburb of Greenwich CT and on Long Island, but he never lost the rural touch – an ultimate goal and identification – nor did he want to. It’s who he was. Even in the Good Old Days, he illustrated a book titled The Good Old Days. He rode his own Toonerville trolley, and knew where it went.



  1. Don't you just hate it when you're on vacation and a war breaks out?
    I know I sure do. :)
    And so did Fontaine Fox, but at least he got a 6-part series out of it (in 1939)